Narozny draws an intriguing literary debut from the unexpected milieu of yucks and pratfalls, “browsers” and “sleeper jumps” of 20th-century vaudeville.
It is 1922, glory days for skits and novelty acts on stages large and small. But Swain, a one-handed juggler, scrambles for second-tier bookings, relegated to chase audiences after the performance of a child artist as gifted as a young Chaplin, a youngster named Jonson. Swain also is a drug courier, distributing vials of silver-blue liquid around the hinterland, vials he notches carefully each time he samples and then dilutes the contents. Narozny supplies ample back story for Swain. Twenty years earlier a major headliner as a wire act, and then he fell. Confidence gone, Swain partnered with Connor, a medicine show charlatan until, missing the vaudeville lights, he makes an unspeakable choice to return. The novel is divided into quarters, with Jonson père, soon to be Swain’s nemesis, the focus of the most compelling segment. Jonson too was vaudeville, in a husband-wife act, but his wife died in childbirth, leaving him with his son. Easing his pain with booze, Jonson takes work as a piano player in a high-society brothel, allowing his boy to be mothered by one of the girls. Jonson also becomes an ally of the madame, and she sends him back to vaudeville, accompanied by the boy already so talented as to be "a hytone note on a bill of hokum." Jonson is also to deliver the silver-blue narcotic and shadow Swain’s drug dealings, an easy task since he’s already suspicious of Swain’s intentions toward his son. There are murders, with the final two segments unreeling from the point of view of the boy and of a nameless detective identified as the Inspector. The story unfolds believably, albeit with a subtle shadow of near surrealism.
An original and promising literary debut.